Jailbreaking iPhone could pose threat to national security, Apple claims

In response to the U.S Copyright Office's questions, Apple claims that jailbreaking the iPhone could pose threats of a catastrophic level.

Dong Ngo SF Labs Manager, Editor / Reviews
CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews 3D printers, networking/storage devices, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.
Dong Ngo
3 min read

I just got my new iPhone 3GS the other day and the first thing I did with it was get it jailbroken, just how I handled my iPhone 3G.

This time around, it was not really because I was in dire need of any extra functionality (the 3GS now can do video recording out of the box, which my 3G could only do when jailbroken). Most importantly, I wanted to feel like I could do anything with a device I paid almost $600 for (I couldn't wait until December to be qualified for the discount upgrade).

Cydia store for jailbroken iPhones, where developers can summit their applications without having to deal with Apple App Store's policies. Dong Ngo/CNET

Little did I know what would constitute "anything" in this case.

Apparently, as Apple claimed via comments filed last week (PDF) I, and my newly freed phone, could be the culprit for AT&T network unreliability and even more seriously, when disgruntled, I could use it as a weapon of mass wireless disruption by taking down AT&T wireless towers. (OK, honestly this revelation makes me feel kind of powerful.)

First reported by Wired.com, Apple's comments explained that jailbreaking allows hackers to alter the phone's baseband processor (officially called the BBP chip), which is the chip that enables the phone to connect to cell towers.

(A personal note: The only purpose of altering of the chip, via software or the hard way, I've known of so far is to unlock the phone, which allows it to work with other carriers other than AT&T. Jailbreaking doesn't necessarily mean unlocking and therefore is very much risk-free.)

Apple stated in its filing that by changing the BBP's code, "More pernicious forms of activity may also be enabled. For example, a local or international hacker could potentially initiate commands (such as a denial-of-service attack) that could crash the tower software, rendering the tower entirely inoperable to process calls or transmit data. In short, taking control of the BBP software would be much the equivalent of getting inside the firewall of a corporate computer--to potentially catastrophic result."

Now this is scary because I've never thought the iPhone--being the "Jesus" phone as it is--would have that capability. I always thought that Apple has been trying to keep it locked simply so AT&T could offer it exclusively in the States, which has been possibly the most successful exclusive offer a wireless carrier has ever had; and so Apple could keep tight control over its App Store, which is also a huge success. How naive and non-vigilant of me!

Another somewhat less serious manifestation of jailbreaking the iPhone that Apple mentioned is the fact that when changing the BBP code, a hacker can also change the iPhone's unique Exclusive Chip Identification (ECID) and therefore enable phone calls to be made anonymously, which "would be desirable to drug dealers".

As for AT&T's service, Apple claims that jailbroken phone owners could be the cause of its reportedly problematic network. This is because these unsuspecting users "encounter functional problems with the phone that result from jailbreaking. Such users often call AT&T to report such problems, believing that they may be the result of problems on AT&T's network. AT&T is then forced to spend significant resources investigating and diagnosing the problems to determine whether, in fact, there is a problem with AT&T's network or service."

This seems to explain why my co-worker Eric Franklin always has a high drop-call rate and bad 3G performance on his never-been-unlocked iPhone 3G. And why my friend in New York who uses a locked AT&T's Samsung BlackJack also has problems with dropped calls. (None of us, by the way, has ever called in to report problems. We just suck it up and have faith that AT&T would someday improve its service.) Now it turns out to be all my fault. (I am sorry, guys.)

What makes me feel a little better for my wrongdoing with my iPhones, however, is the fact that the Electronic Frontier Foundation has asked regulators for the DMCA exemption (PDF) that would allow consumers to run any app on the phone, including those not authorized by Apple. This would basically legalize the jailbreaking practice of the iPhones.

And Apple's claims are its response to questions submitted by the U.S. Copyright Office, which is considering EFF's request.

Editor's note: due to some technical issue, comments left prior to 9 a.m. PDT Jul 30 were accidentally removed. We're sorry for the inconvenience.